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Equality won’t happen by itself: our attempt to address it at IDCC
We trialled all-female session chairs at IDCC18 and invited women to ask the first question in order to evoke a more balanced and diverse subsequent discussion. Here are some thoughts on what we did, how and why...
And so it began...
We’ve made a concerted effort over the years to be representative at IDCC, largely thanks to Liz Lyon’s shaping of the conference programme, and I feel we’ve been successful in creating an open, welcoming atmosphere where all delegates are able to share their ideas and build new collaborations, irrespective of their backgrounds. There’s always more you can do though.
I saw a Tweet about the Carter et al research into women’s participation in asking questions at seminars and was intrigued that something as simple as preferencing who got to ask the first question could have such an effect. I know from experience that I’ve often had a question but not been able to pluck up the courage to ask. Would I really feel more confident by hearing others like me go first?
We honestly didn’t know what the reaction would be. I expected it to be obvious that we’d invited all-female chairs and to get some kickback about positive discrimination, but only Rachael Kotarski noticed and commented on this pre-conference. Others remarked on how many female speakers there were, but gender equality wasn’t really a topic until Kevin shared statistics on it in his closing remarks.
Those closing remarks followed a powerful and emotive keynote by Nancy McGovern. I’d proposed inviting her but to my shame hadn’t looked at what she was going to cover. I assumed it would be about digital preservation, but her personal reflections on community building, radical collaboration and inclusivity couldn’t have been a more perfect close to the event. Nancy put forward an impassioned and eloquent argument that diversity of all kinds enriches the communities we are part of and the progress they make. We should always have a broad table and come to collaborations in a spirit of being truly open-minded, willing to listen, compromise and be challenged.
Last year I was invited to sit on the FAIR Data Expert Group by the European Commission. I was initially surprised and a little daunted by the breadth of experience and seniority of other members. I hadn't identified myself as part of that particular community and had to overcome a number of barriers in my own mind to accept. It’s testament to the other members of the Group, and particularly Simon Hodson in his style of chairing, that I’ve felt welcomed, empowered to state my opinions, and unfazed when these are challenged. The experience has helped me to acknowledge the value of my expertise and appreciate why I was invited in the first place.
All of the fora we engage in as a community should be diverse, open and inclusive. Unconscious bias and self-limiting behaviours are really hard to overcome, but it is incumbent on all of us to act respectfully, call out unfair treatment, and support everyone to make their contribution, irrespective of gender, age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation or any other factors. Tiny changes will slowly adjust the culture and they are easy to make.
Melanie Imming asked whether the experiment we did had been more work. In contrast I think it actually made things easier. We have a good gender balance at IDCC (59% of this year’s participants were female) and there was no shortage of really well-suited options for chairs. In fact we had a large reserve list, but no need to call on it. Everyone accepted the invite and did so immediately. No hanging around and chasing up offers. We gave very minimal session chair guidelines and let things run a natural course.
Speaking to the chairs at the conference, I found that several had experienced multiple emotions like me - surprise at being asked, slight anxiety, excitement, pride, and happiness to be able to give something back to the community that had helped them. As to whether the experiment paid off I don’t know. We weren’t scientific in counting audience members and questions, but I for one asked more questions than I ever have at a conference before. I hope our actions have empowered others to value their opinions more highly and feel confident enough to express them. This is what will drive us forward.